The trolley problem, race, and making decisions

The trolley problem  is a classic vignette used in research studies and it asks under what conditions is it permissible to sacrifice one life for the lives of others (see an explanation here). Psychologist David Pizarro tweaked the trolley problem to include racial dimensions by using characters named Chip and Tyrone. Pizarro found that people’s opinions about race influenced which character they were more willing to sacrifice:

What did this say about people’s morals? Not that they don’t have any. It suggests that they had more than one set of morals, one more consequentialist than another, and choose to fit the situation…

Or as Pizarro told me on the phone, “The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”

So we’ll tell a child on one day, as Pizarro’s parents told him, that ends should never justify means, then explain the next day that while it was horrible to bomb Hiroshima, it was morally acceptable because it shortened the war. We act — and then cite whichever moral system fits best, the relative or the absolute.

Some interesting findings from a different take on a classic research tool. This is always an interesting question to ask regarding many social issues: when does the end justify the means and when does it not?

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